What is Trident for?

Norman Dombey

  • The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The White Paper, Cm. 6994
    Stationery Office, 140 pp, £13.50, December 2006, ISBN 0 10 169942 5
  • The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent: The White Paper. Ninth Report, House of Commons Defence Committee, HC 225-I
    Stationery Office, 88 pp, £14.50, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 215 03281 2

The prime minister made it clear that except where Her Majesty’s Government may decide that supreme national interests are at stake, these British forces will be used for the purposes of international defence of the Western Alliance in all circumstances.

Harold Macmillan,
21 December 1962

Harold Macmillan’s statement was made during a visit to the Bahamas to meet President Kennedy, hurriedly arranged after the US government cancelled the air-launched Skybolt missile, which it had promised to sell to the UK. Macmillan persuaded Kennedy, in the face of opposition from the Pentagon, to sell the US’s new submarine-launched Polaris missile to the UK instead, at a very favourable price, provided Britain supplied the submarines and the nuclear warheads. There was a further condition. Macmillan noted in his diary that ‘I have agreed to make our present bomber force (or part of it) and our Polaris force (when it comes) a Nato force for general purposes. But I have reserved absolutely the right of HMG to use it independently for “supreme national interest”.’ So, in normal circumstances, the Polaris fleet was not quite ‘our independent nuclear deterrent’, as Tony Blair described it in his foreword to the December 2006 White Paper on the renewal of Polaris’s replacement, Trident.

The Nassau statement goes into some detail about the use of the Polaris force ‘for the purposes of international defence’: it would be ‘part of a Nato nuclear force and targeted in accordance with Nato plans’. In a crisis the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (Saceur), always an American general, would take command of Nato forces, including nuclear forces. Indeed, the structure of Nato’s nuclear forces is predicated on US control. For example, in 2005 Nato had 130 B61 bombs at Ramstein air force base in Germany, 90 for delivery by the US and 40 by the German air force. How can Germany possess nuclear weapons when it is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-weapon state? The answer is that the NPT was very carefully worded to allow it: the US owns all 130 warheads, and if a crisis arises, Saceur would take command of both US and Bundeswehr forces at Ramstein and get his orders from Washington. There are US warheads in Turkey, Italy, Belgium and Holland, all assigned to Nato under similar arrangements. There are also 110 B61s stored at RAF Lakenheath, set up to be delivered by US F-15E aircraft, even though since 1998 the RAF itself no longer has a nuclear mission. Originally, the B61s were to be used in accordance with Nato’s first-strike nuclear doctrine against a massive attack by the Red Army on West Germany or West Berlin. It is no longer clear what these weapons are for.

Which brings us to Trident. ‘For 50 years,’ Blair begins his preface to the White Paper,

our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national survival. For most of that time, during the Cold War, its purpose was clear, though not without controversy. Today’s world is different. Many of the old certainties and divisions of the Cold War are gone. We cannot predict the way the world will look in 30 or 50 years’ time.

The White Paper amounts to a justification for continuing the policy outlined in the Nassau Agreement 45 years ago. Blair’s opening statement is incorrect. In the last 50 years we came closest to nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. We survived because of a combination of Khrushchev’s caution and Kennedy’s good sense in overruling his military advisers’ wish to attack Cuba. Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated a secret deal according to which Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba were withdrawn in exchange for the removal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey. Our ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ was irrelevant. If war had broken out the UK would have been attacked because both British and US nuclear forces were based here.

The White Paper claims that, although the nature of the threat has changed since the end of the Cold War, ‘the global context does not justify complete UK nuclear disarmament,’ since ‘significant nuclear arsenals remain’ and

the number of states possessing nuclear weapons has continued to grow, as demonstrated most recently by North Korea’s attempted test in October this year. Ballistic missile technology has also continued to proliferate . . . We cannot rule out the risk that either a major direct nuclear threat to the UK’s vital interests will re-emerge or that new states will emerge that possess a more limited nuclear capability . . . We have therefore decided . . . to maintain our nuclear deterrent by building a new class of submarines.

The present fleet is ‘likely to start leaving service from the early 2020s’, and ‘it will take 17 years to design, manufacture and commission a replacement.’ If the aim is to maintain a nuclear missile capability, the decision to build new submarines is already overdue. The cost of replacing the fleet of four boats is estimated at £15-20 billion, and the expenditure will take place ‘principally in the period between 2012 and 2027’ (the Commons Defence Committee’s report estimates running costs in 2006-7 prices as £1.5 billion per year). The White Paper leaves open the possibility that three submarines will be enough. Finally, it states that our stockpile of nuclear warheads will be reduced below 160, a reduction of nearly 50 per cent since 1997.

The Defence Committee report sets out to analyse the White Paper, hoping ‘to encourage and inform the public debate on the future of the nuclear deterrent’. This is to be welcomed. When the Polaris system was upgraded in the mid-1970s even the cabinet wasn’t informed in advance, and in 1980 the Thatcher government announced to the Commons that the decision to procure Trident had already been taken. The Defence Committee’s report makes no recommendation for or against renewal; that, it says, is a matter for the Commons. On 14 March, the Commons voted in favour, despite the rebellion of 95 Labour MPs. It seems clear that the timing is political: the decision to renew Trident will be part of Blair’s legacy. It will also provide jobs for BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness.

How are nuclear weapons to be used? For many years, the UK’s doctrine has been that they would be employed only as a last resort, which is usually interpreted as a response to a nuclear threat against the country, or against it and its allies. Des Browne, the minister of defence, told the Defence Committee that ‘it is, and always has been, part of our deterrence posture that we retain an ambiguity about precisely when, how and at what scale we would contemplate using our nuclear weapons.’ When he was minister in 2003, Geoff Hoon stated that nuclear weapons could be used to deter a state which used chemical or biological weapons against UK forces during the invasion of Iraq. The White Paper gives no further information about the circumstances in which British nuclear weapons may be used. This is unfortunate. If non-nuclear weapon states and even countries without a nuclear weapons programme can be targeted, it inevitably weakens the argument that those states shouldn’t procure nuclear weapons themselves.

If the UK doesn’t face a threat from states that possess nuclear weapons, and if nuclear weapons are useless against terrorism, what is the risk against which Trident provides insurance? North Korea and Iran are the usual answers, but neither threatens the UK, and it should in any case be possible to resolve disputes with both by diplomatic means. The White Paper claims we should worry that another state will develop a nuclear arsenal at some point in the next fifty years and become a threat. This will be a genuine concern if the NPT breaks down, as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty already has. The strains on the NPT are well known: the clandestine Iraqi uranium enrichment programme in place before the first Gulf War; the black market in uranium enrichment centrifuges involving Pakistan, Iran and Libya; the Bush administration’s refusal to adhere to the framework agreement negotiated by Clinton with North Korea; and Bush’s refusal to comply with US commitments made at the 2000 NPT Review Conference to work towards complete elimination of its nuclear weapons. The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, believes that the nuclear weapon states must show that they are serious about their commitment to non-proliferation. ‘We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security – and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use,’ ElBaradei said recently. If Britain gave up its nuclear capability, it would help reduce the risk of another nuclear state appearing by strengthening the NPT. Canada, Sweden, Australia and South Africa have all abandoned their weapons programmes in the belief that preventing further proliferation will increase their own security.

The Defence Committee’s report calls on ‘the government to clarify . . . how the UK’s nuclear forces are integrated into the nuclear defence of Nato and what the implications of the Alliance’s first use and sub-strategic policies are for the nuclear deterrent’. An exchange of letters between Bush and Blair on 7 December 2006 is included: the Trident force will continue to be assigned to Nato in all circumstances except where ‘supreme national interests are at stake.’ Thatcher wrote something similar to Reagan in 1982. So far as I understand it, the Nato command structure for Trident, unlike Polaris, does not give Saceur control. Instead, operational responsibility lies with the British Commander-in-Chief Fleet (Cincfleet), currently Admiral Sir James Burnell-Nugent, whose operational headquarters are in Northwood, Middlesex, where the UK forces joint headquarters are situated. Cincfleet is also the Commander, Allied Maritime Component Command Northwood, a Nato command. So, by sleight-of-hand, the Trident fleet is a national fleet and a Nato fleet at the same time. Cincfleet has operational control of Trident, and a missile cannot be fired without the prime minister’s permission. Therefore, one might think, the British independent deterrent is operationally British, independent and of course a deterrent. But I suspect that, as presently constituted and as planned for the next forty or fifty years, it isn’t any of these things.

Britain’s nuclear weapons did not deter Turkey from invading Cyprus in 1974, even though the UK was a guarantor by treaty of Cyprus’s independence; nor did they stop Argentina invading the Falklands in 1982. They didn’t deter the US from invading Grenada in 1983, even though Grenada was a member of the Commonwealth. I cannot think of one instance in which our nuclear deterrent has deterred anyone from doing anything.

The Trident system clearly isn’t British. The missiles are made in the United States, as are the guidance systems and the fire control system. They are serviced at King’s Bay in Georgia, along with the US Trident fleet. The missiles have to be tested in the US. The submarines are made in this country, but many of the crucial components, such as the inertial navigation system, come from the US. The warheads are based on an American design. All the crucial targeting software comes from the US. Britain does not own any particular missile; it is merely entitled to 50 missiles out of the pool kept at King’s Bay. One way to test what is meant by operational independence is to ask whether the British Trident could target New York.

The answer is that it couldn’t. The US register of potential nuclear strike targets is drawn up at US Strategic Command (Stratcom) headquarters in Omaha, where there is a UK liaison mission. There is also a UK Strategic Targeting Centre in London which co-ordinates with Stratcom; British plans can be incorporated, if they are approved, into the US plan. But the targeting software is provided by Stratcom and the Joint Warfare Analysis Center in Virginia. The UK is dependent on the US for this software, which includes data that the UK cannot provide: information about weather over the target, for example, needs to be relayed to the Trident fleet from the US Fleet Numerical Meteorological and Oceanography Center; and the UK relies on the US for accurate measurements of the gravitational field in the vicinity of the target and a catalogue of star positions for stellar navigation. The Trident fleet, in practice, is an adjunct of the US Navy, with a UK veto on the use of its missiles. New York could not be attacked because Stratcom has not prepared the software that would be required.

President Kennedy offered France the Polaris missile in 1963 but de Gaulle, unlike Macmillan, refused the offer. France had already decided the previous year to build its own ballistic missiles and its own submarines to deliver them. It also builds its own warheads without continuing US support. The first submarine, Le Redoutable, went on operational patrol in 1971 and the fifth submarine was launched in 1980. France has a new Triomphant class of submarine, and in 2010 a new submarine-launched missile, known as the M51, will replace the M45, which is now in service. Enthusiasts for a common European foreign and defence policy often urge British nuclear collaboration with France, rather than with the US. I am sympathetic to this idea. But it is not possible: the UK has given up its intellectual property rights over nuclear weapons. Since the 1958 mutual defence agreement between the UK and US on military nuclear energy, the US has been sending its nuclear designs to the UK. Britain’s Polaris warhead was the W58, developed at Livermore; the Trident warhead is the W76, developed at Los Alamos.

The UK-US agreement forbids the transfer of classified US nuclear information to third parties without US consent: if a British citizen were to transfer that information without authorisation to a French citizen it would constitute a felony under US law. All British nuclear weapons contain information of US origin. British warheads are not British; nor are they independent. What is Trident for? It is to bind the United Kingdom to the United States. Tony Blair intends his legacy to be that Britain remains that country’s poodle for another fifty years.